Do you see what I see?

Portia tweets at @PortiaSmart and blogs at portiasmart, where the post first appeared.

Whenever I get asked the random ‘favourite part of your body’ question, I feel numb. My hand is the best I can do – although I can see a dozen things wrong with it.

I have BDD – Body Dysmorphic Disorder (not on my medical record – I refuse to be labelled by the medical profession). When the media first reported on BDD, they called it ‘imagined ugliness syndrome’. Broadly speaking, when someone is diagnosed with BDD, they perceive that parts of their body are abnormal/wrong/ugly/flawed and this causes them severe distress and/or significantly disrupts their life.

I first realised I had BDD ten years ago (after watching Oprah with author Katharine A. Phillips who wrote The Broken Mirror). At the time, there were no resources in the UK or awareness of the condition, except for one doctor in London – Doctor Veale. I corresponded with him, completed a questionnaire and knew instantly that this was what I had. I felt nothing but relief.

At my most acute, I was anorexic, unable to leave the house during daylight (in case someone could tell how hideous I was) and it took me 8 hours every day to get ready: dressed and redressed, bathing constantly, make-up on and off, measuring the angle of my eyes with a protractor and using an ink pen to ‘even them out’, using sandpaper to scrub my body, ‘cleaning’ my face with nail polish remover, skin picking, over grooming etc etc etc.

The irony of all this is that I was scouted for modelling twice during this period. Twice! This, apparently, was ‘the look’. I was a teenager working weekends in a bar (dark, smoky, anonymous atmosphere – perfect) but if my circumstances had have been different and I could have afforded plastic surgery, I would have sliced my body to shreds.

And that level of self-hatred makes me desperately sad. Because I KNOW that it was never about my physicality – it was a manifestation of how I felt about myself. I see so many women and men who have issues around their body image and if you scratch the surface, it often boils down to low self-esteem: ‘I’m not good enough’.

I am lucky that I managed to self-help. I do not trust my mental and emotional well-being to anyone and I have never received medical help for mental/emotional distress – I don’t want the labels and the stigma (this is a very personal decision and not one that works for everyone). I had people who loved and cared for me deeply at this point but I could not reach out. I find accessing any external support impossible so, I somehow manage to support, challenge and recover myself when I am distressed. I bought The Broken Mirror and it saved my sanity and changed my life.

I started writing this post after a young woman shared her experience of body shaming and it broke my heart… she is beautiful and courageous and smart and yet in that moment, her worth came down to what she looked like. I guess my hope is that if anyone is experiencing body image issues/BDD, this post may provide some support, understanding, information (I have added links at the end for helpful websites) and hope.

As for me now? How I feel about my external changes frequently. Mostly, I don’t obsess about my physicality anymore. I don’t think I’m hideous too often. I accept that some people find me physically attractive and I try to be gracious about it, when it is not objectification. I celebrate the wholeness of my body: what it can and can’t do. I guess I am ‘in recovery’. But, you know those days when I am feeling good about myself as a person? THAT is when I am at my most beautiful. X

Information and resources:

The Broken Mirror by Katharine A. Phillips – A book on BDD with care studies, signs and symptoms, questionnaires and resources.

BDD help – a website set up by Emma who experiences BDD.

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